"Growing up as a kid in Seattle, I always had a fascination with cowboys and westerns. I went to my first gay rodeo and got hooked by the whole scene. The rodeo ignited that feeling — the environment, the camaraderie, the maleness of it."
That's Blake Little, an established portrait photographer who's worked with Tom Cruise, Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore — and who began shooting the gay rodeo scene in 1988. The results — 41 black and white images of cowboys and cowgirls — are collected in Blake Little: Photographs of the Gay Rodeo, opening this weekend at the Eiteljorg.
Little started out on the sidelines of International Gay Rodeo Association events, but was on a bull by his sixth rodeo, and came to be named Bull Riding Champion of the Year by the association in 1990.
"I was one of them, so it became more accessible and more intimate," says Little. "The gay rodeo pictures are of a community that tends to be in a more conservative environment because Western culture just tends to be more conservative. It's a powerful thing for people in Western culture that are straight or have more conservative views to see these people as real, as essentially just like them."
Eiteljorg curator Johanna Blume was drawn to photos both for their beauty and for the way in which they tell a lesser-told story of the American West: "The composition and balance of light and dark are stunning. But also we have this beautiful work that represents a part of Western culture that is so rarely talked about. We can use these to talk about a diverse American West."
For Blake, the photos, taken from 1988 to 1992, tell a story of progress.
"I've grown up through gay rights, through Ellen coming out, and I've seen marriage equality come to fruition," says Little. "These photos add to a way of seeing gay, lesbian and transgender people as the same as anybody in Western culture. It's going to bring, for the first time, a look at the gay rodeo, which is essentially just another rodeo."
Blume notes intense action shots in the series that depict the rodeo in all its roughness; "You see people flying off of horses or struggling to hang on to a bull coming out of the shoot. Yes, this is a gay rodeo, but they are being thrown off and crashing to the ground at the same speed and rate as anyone else."
Little's show turns out to be a timely one for the Eiteljorg, located just across East Street from the Indiana Government Center and Statehouse.
"You can't deny the social context of the gay rodeo work," says Little. "The Eiteljorg needs to be acknowledged for the fact that they have the strength and fortitude to put this exhibition on."
"The Eiteljorg has been committed to diversity for a very long time," explains Blume. "We believe that cultural diversity enriches our lives. I hope that people are engaged by the exhibit and that the political climate that we live in right now means that people will think critically when they come into the exhibit and maybe step outside of their comfort zones. That's when transformative learning can occur."
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